I’ve Been Gluten-Free for 15 Years; Here’s What I've Learned

Updated 04/29/19

A life without gluten prompts some FAQs from the general public. Is pizza in direct ratio to happiness? (Rhetorical, duh.) What happens if you accidentally eat bread? (Ever seen Alien?) Do you have an allergy, or are you a professional actor? (I possess a genuine allergy and nowhere near enough Instagram followers to be on Raya.) Being that I have survived in the wild sans gluten for 15 years, I have a few opinions on the ease and convenience of going grain-free. It’s easier that it seems; you just need the proper tour guide.

Keep scrolling to hear my tried-and-true hacks.

When it comes to food sensitivities, there’s a wide spectrum. Even without a true allergy or the autoimmune disorder celiac, food sensitivities and intolerances remain widely pervasive. The key difference between an allergy and an intolerance is characterized by an immune system reaction. When people with celiac disease or an allergy consume gluten, the body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causing damage to the villi in the lining of the small intestine. When the villi are damaged, the body is incapable of properly absorbing nutrients.

Celiac is hereditary, whereas food sensitivities can develop at any time.

Quick Tip

Essentially, an intolerance or sensitivity means the body lacks the proper enzymes to effectively digest a certain food.

The symptoms for celiac disease, allergies, and sensitivities can be the same: abdominal bloating, nausea, stomach pain, irritability, and joint pain. If you notice a shift in your body after eating gluten, ask your physician for a blood test and an allergy panel. Signs and symptoms can vary widely.

I remember when gluten started to get street cred. Back in the year 2000, I went to 27 separate physicians before being diagnosed with a gluten allergy. It was not “a thing.” I had multiple medical professionals look me in eye and accuse me of lying when I apprised them of my bizarre symptoms (such as gaining 12 pounds in one hour from inflammation after eating a single pancake.) Then all of a sudden, gluten-free went global. There were alternative flours in mainstream grocery stores. Restaurants were offering options.

Every now and again, I still encounter a human clutching to the staunch belief that gluten allergies are not real. There’s the occasional eye roll. Rest assured, being gluten-free is not some anti-carb vanity crusade. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, people. Gluten-free people love carbs. Donuts haunt our dreams on a Homer Simpson level. 

Let’s talk about the life source that is pizza. One’s pizza palette is deeply personal and specific. I strongly favor a New York–style thin slice. To that end, I have yet to taste a gluten-free pie that could rival my favorite East Coast joints. Most gluten-free crusts are made with rice flour, which is slightly sweet and gummy for my taste. That said, really, really good gluten-free pizza is out there. Paxti’s in SF has a deep dish that’s on-point. Vito’s in L.A. is delicious. Against the Grain is the only frozen option I will eat.

Is it ever going to be as good as a street slice in Brooklyn? In my humble opinion, it is not. My life is about other joys now.

The first time I walked into Babycakes in NYC and tried one of their delectable cupcakes (they kill it in the vegan icing arena), I was bristling with excitement to call my sister. “How is it?” she asked eagerly. “It’s good. I’d say they are on year eight of the recipe,” I replied. That was not a joke. My sister’s favorite food is pie. Gluten-free desserts became job one. It took 10 years for us to bake a cake that met with our exacting standards. Hint: Coconut yogurt is a secret ingredient. If you’re just starting to bake gluten-free, take heart and be persistent.

Alternative flours are wily little minxes. They are moody and temperamental. Most recipes require constant tweaks. Just experiment until you nail it.

Technically speaking, the distillation process of hard alcohol removes any gluten protein from liquor. Science aside, 100% of gluten-allergy people I know have a very specific and diverse response to liquor. My identical twin sister and I even react differently to alcohol. Bulleit bourbon is my staple; she can’t handle any whiskey or bourbon period. Some companies add back in malt, mash, hops, etc. after the fact to add flavor, so beware. Note that 100% agave tequila is among the easiest to digest if you have a gluten sensitivity.

 For a list of celiac-approved beers and cocktails, go to celiac.com.

My diet is vaguely paleo (I’ll never leave you, pizza.) I notice a marked difference in my mental focus and energy level, plus pain-free joints, if I avoid grains completely. Going gluten-free will force one's hand into creative food pairings. Millet, quinoa, and chia seed pudding? The Internet is a vast forest of whimsical off-the-beaten-path recipes. Going gluten-free is easier than you might think.

Travel is a time for cutting loose and splurging on amazing, adventurous food. Dietary restrictions can be an albatross to free-wheeling foodie friends. Unless those friends are paleo: Paleo eaters and vegans will trump a gluten-allergy any day in the picky eater category. You will find great empathy in the eyes of a vegan friend if you ever find yourself on the coast of Spain, both refraining from the best meat and bread in the world.

I was a competitive athlete growing up. Four to six hours in a gym was the norm for me throughout high school. It wasn’t until I stopped working out so intensely that I even noticed my food sensitivities. My nutritionist explained high intensity exercise had been offsetting the histamines in my bloodstream. Sweating it out remains the best cureall when I have a reaction. Reactions can take up to 72 hours to peak. If I accidentally eat gluten, here’s my routine: activated charcoal to detox (this works for dogs too), Benadryl for allergy relief, an elimination diet of easy-to-digest foods for three days, Bikram yoga, and coffee.

If I’m absolutely too ill to work out, I frequent the steam room at Equinox. Infrared saunas are also magic. Find what works for you.

Shop gluten-free cookbooks below.

It's All Easy by Gwyneth Paltrow $35 $20
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Against the Grain by Nancy Cain $28 $19
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BabyCakes Covers the Classics by Erin McKenna $25 $18
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Against All Grain by Danielle Walker $35 $18
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Have a tip for going gluten-free? Tell us in the comments below.

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